IAmSpartacus Uprising Shows the Power, and Problems, of Twitter Humor

Twitter is the perfect vehicle for comedians, established or otherwise. Shame the British courts disagree.

Twitter joke trial


The Twittersphere is hashtagging support for a British man convicted of menacing behavior after using the deadly weapon of humor: He joked about blowing up an airport in a tweet. Twitter users have retweeted Paul Chambers’ original update, from January 6 of this year, by the thousands, turning the #IAmSpartacus hashtag into Twitter’s biggest trending topic. The underlying message is that, in a country which positively revels in sarcastic and ironic humor, our judiciary do not seem to be able take a joke.

As a result of the verdict, Chambers lost his job as a financial manager, and so mounted an appeal to have the conviction quashed. Yesterday however, the judge rejected his appeal, calling the tweet “menacing in its content and obviously so.” To add insult to injury, she upped his fine by £2,000, to £3,000. Even in a crisis, it seems, Chambers didn’t lose his sense of humor. Twitterer-in-Chief Stephen Fry, has offered to pay Chambers’ fine, and a fund has been set up to to pay for another appeal, if Chambers decides to re-appeal.

In a separate incident yesterday, a British councillor was arrested after he jokingly asked Twitter users to stone a British journalist. As a result, Gareth Compton was detained under the Communications act, and suspended by the Conservative party. He has since apologized. The fact that Compton was detained under a different law to Chambers (Chambers’ sin was to have broken a law originally brought in to protect telephone operators in the 1930s, while Compton’s law dates back to 2003) speaks volumes about the confusion of the authorities over modern mediums of communication.

As Michael Cosgrove points out on Digital Journal, however, British humor is in a different division to other countries. That’s not to say it’s better, but it’s certainly blacker–and, in some cases, cuts deeper (witness Ricky Gervais). “British humor is less constrained than many others, and some from other countries may find it offensive. Contents here include smut and innuendo, disrespect to members of the establishment, the absurd, the macabre, the class system and the embarrassment of social ineptitude.”

The judge’s decision has sent the British humor classes into a frenzy. David Mitchell, Graham Linehan, and Peter Serafinowicz have all waded into the furore. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that irony doesn’t come across so well when used in online communications, but in cases such as these two, following the spirit of the law rather than the letter of it is surely the way forward. After all, a snarky, 140-character one-liner on a social networking site is one thing. Terrorist propaganda on the web is another.

About the author

My writing career has taken me all round the houses over the past decade and a half--from grumpy teens and hungover rock bands in the U.K., where I was born, via celebrity interviews, health, tech and fashion in Madrid and Paris, before returning to London, where I now live. For the past five years I've been writing about technology and innovation for U.S.